Why Drag Arnie Into This Mess?

Wednesday, November 1st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

It's bad enough that he's about to strain friendships, compromise hundreds of businessmen and cheapen the game he claims to love and respect.

But the unforgivable part of Ely Callaway's latest scheme to sell more golf clubs is enlisting Arnold Palmer to help.

Callaway is the 81-year-old marketing whiz and founder of Callaway Golf, which is taking orders for a driver that violates the rules set out by the U.S. Golf Association. Palmer needs no introduction.

Yet when Palmer was introduced at an Oct. 18 news conference to announce the launch of the ERC II driver, more than a few of the 400 in attendance did a double take. Especially once Palmer opened his mouth.

``There's not any threat to the game whatsoever by hitting the ball further,'' Palmer said. ``I think we should focus on people having fun playing golf.''

If only it was that simple.

The drawbacks associated with equipment that helps golfers hit longer, straighter drives in a game with fixed boundaries are many: Friends playing $5 Nassaus will argue whether the ERC II can be used. Club pros who are supposed to ensure golf is played and handicaps tallied according to USGA rules will be pressured to sell them. The USGA, already under assault by equipment companies, faces a further erosion of its independence to set standards for the game.

The benefit of the driver, on the other hand, is singular: It will generate an avalanche of sales for a company whose shareholders care only about the bottom line.

Callaway has been among the most innovative manufacturers in the business, but the ERC II marks an ominous step forward. Look past the usual hype about growing the game or making it more enjoyable. More telling is what Edwin Watts, owner of a chain of golf shops bearing his name, said about the club: ``This driver will be the shot in the arm the golf business needs.''

Callaway is counting on that to win this skirmish. Already, the USGA has lost an important ally. Last month, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews — the rules-making body outside North America — conducted its own study that concluded the extra distance off the tee is not a threat.

``We hope that the acceptance of this driver by the public will place pressure on the USGA to change the rules,'' he said.

But just is case, his company has threatened to sue the USGA if it attempts to ``stigmatize or ostracize'' golfers who use the ERC II.

Power plays rarely get more cynical than this, but Callaway's does. He claims there have always been two games of golf, recreational and tournament, and that the ERC II is intended for use only in the first one. Like communism, it's a nice theory; in practice, it's going to be a mess.

``I've maintained from the start,'' USGA executive director David Fay said, ``it doesn't matter if it's kindergarten dodge ball or golf. You have to have rules, and someone has to set them.''

Human nature guarantees no one will fork over more than $600 for a club to use on the driving range or in practice rounds. And some people argue that thousands of golfers already play by their own modified rules; they take mulligans, carry more than the maximum 14 clubs allowed and improve their lies.

But Callaway is testing a new low by using one of the game's most respected figures to help grease the slide down a slippery slope. Though his reputation slips with it, Palmer seems oblivious.

He signed a 12-year endorsement deal with Callaway this summer. For the past 25 years, he's served as a spokesman for the USGA. Yet, when Golfweek magazine asked whether endorsing the ERC II was, in effect, an endorsement of cheating, Palmer threatened to hang up the phone.

``Would you like to rephrase that?'' he said. ``If not, then I think we've reached the end of this conversation.''

Unfortunately, it's just beginning.

Pros playing the Tour Championship this weekend in Atlanta, where USGA rules apply, can't use the ERC II. They can at the World Golf Championship next week in Spain.

Tiger Woods, who can compete in either locale without the added distance, was asked whether Palmer's stance surprised him.

``Yes and no,'' he said. ``I think yes from a traditional standpoint and what he's kind of stood for in the game. And no from the standpoint he's like every other golfer trying to get a little bit longer and a little bit better and trying to get that little extra edge.''

Fellow PGA Tour pro Scott Hoch was more succinct: ``He's been a man of integrity for the game, the spokesman for as long as I can remember for the game and the rules of golf and everything else. And it really surprised me that he did that.''

Davis Love III, a former PGA champion and son of a teaching pro, shudders to think where this debate heads next.

``You could,'' he said, ``make the hole bigger.''


Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org